Dilemma on Outposts Underscores a Bigger Challenge — Disengagement

On the face of it, nothing illustrates Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political odyssey from settlement builder to settlement dismantler better than a recently published report on West Bank outposts. The report details how government ministers and officials broke the law and circumvented regulations in building and funding dozens of unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank.

Sharon, once one of the greatest culprits, was the man who, in his new incarnation, commissioned what he knew would be a scathing indictment.

But it’s not that simple. Sharon commissioned the report under intense American pressure to take down the outposts. And so far, despite the report’s findings and recommendations, the Americans are not convinced he intends to act.

The response to the report highlighted another key issue. It shows just how difficult it will be to implement Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank.

Israeli officials are expecting such massive resistance to the disengagement that they have developed a detailed plan of operation to carry it out.

After adopting the report’s findings, the government deferred dismantling the 24 outposts it had long promised the Americans to remove. That led some politicians and pundits to ask how, if it backs away from taking down tiny outposts, the government will dismantle 25 full-fledged settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank when the time comes this summer?

Sharon commissioned the report to demonstrate good faith and carry out commitments he made to the Bush administration last April. After promising the Americans to dismantle unauthorized outposts built since March 2001, he found he did not know the genesis and precise legal status of each one. Similarly, under pressure not to expand full-fledged, authorized settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he found he lacked accurate information on their precise borders.

So he set up two teams: One, under lawyer Talia Sasson, was to clarify the legal status and history of the unauthorized outposts. The other, under reserve Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, was to demarcate the physical boundaries of all existing settlements.

But the Americans remain unimpressed.

American officials note that although Sharon had shown good faith, they still do not have a list of unauthorized settlements or a timetable for their evacuation. Nor has Spiegel yet produced the required border documentation.

The report by former chief prosecutor Sasson, released last week, charged that ministers and senior aides, some of them settlers, had systematically turned a blind eye to the law.

It also charged that budgets were funneled clandestinely through the Housing Ministry, building permission was covertly granted by the Defense Ministry, there was a system of saying one thing in public and doing the opposite behind the scenes and Likud and Labor administrations were equally at fault.

“The picture that is revealed is one of crass violation of the law by state institutions, public authorities, regional councils in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and settlers, all by creating the false impression of an organized system operating according to law,” Sasson wrote. The most important thing now, she said, was to regulate the procedures and stop the double talk.

In response, the government set up a committee under Justice Minister Tzippi Livni to root out the covert practices by laying down clear regulations for authorizing and financing outposts and initiating new legislation if necessary.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon was adamant about the need to dismantle the 24 outposts established since March 2001. That was an Israeli commitment in the internationally approved Israeli-Palestinian peace “road map,” he explained. But he did not propose any timetable.

That brought deep differences between Likud and Labor ministers to the fore. The Labor ministers wanted to see immediate action; the Likud ministers were in favor of waiting until after the disengagement plan was implemented.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of the Likud argued that disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was Israel’s top policy priority, and the government could not afford to be sidetracked by other issues. And, he added, it would be a mistake to create more antagonisms in the already tense pre-disengagement atmosphere.

But Labor’s Haim Ramon countered that to do nothing now would be to show weakness and send a message to the extremists that they could stop the disengagement by using threats and force.

Rejecting the Labor argument, the government decided to concentrate only on implementing disengagement.

To that end, 18,000 police officers — three-quarters of the entire Israeli police force — and two army divisions have been assigned to the job, and already they are gearing up to meet a wide range of settler and extremist threats.

Extreme right-wingers reportedly are planning to stop the disengagement process through a cataclysmic event that changes the course of history. There are rumors, for example, that extremists are plotting to assassinate the prime minister or blow up Muslim holy places on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

In response, Shin Bet protection of the prime minister is unprecedented, police have stepped up defenses around Temple Mount and the Justice Ministry has set up a special legal team to help police and Shin Bet agents who are fighting political incitement and violence.

The biggest police and IDF worry, though, is evacuation day itself, when hundreds of thousands of settlers and their supporters from all over the country threaten to descend on settlements slated for evacuation, making it impossible for police and soldiers to remove the local settlers from their homes.

To prevent this scenario, which they are taking very seriously, the army and police are planning a massive logistical operation. To stop the outsiders from getting through, the plan is to ring the settlements with five circles of police and soldiers. The outer circle will be in Israel proper. Anyone getting through that will have to penetrate the fourth circle, then the third and so on.

According to the plan, unarmed police in the protected inner circle will do the actual evacuating of local settlers from their homes.

Only when this huge operation is complete, Sharon and Mofaz say, will they focus on the outposts that the Sasson report, American pressure and Israel’s road map commitments demand they take down.

Whether the United States and the rest of the international community have the patience to go along with this policy remains to be seen.

The fact that Sharon seems to have made such an about-face in his attitude to the settlements and the outposts probably will see him through until the end of the summer. Then, once the disengagement is over, he will have to act or face a possible showdown with Washington.

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